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Scared Dili refugees refuse to return home

Sydney Morning Herald - January 12, 1999

Louise Williams, Jakarta – The Indonesian military will today begin sending more than 100 refugees camped in the East Timorese capital of Dili, who fled ongoing security operations around their villages, back to their homes.

But hundreds more say they will not move because they remain fearful of civilian militia units recently armed by the military to join the campaign against pro-independence guerillas.

Refugees have been arriving in Dili over the past few weeks, saying they have fled a terror campaign by new groups of armed civilians, formed by the military to boost efforts to crush pro-independence guerillas from the Falantil movement.

The Dili office of the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnasham) said more than 100 people would be repatriated to the central mountain area of Cailaco tomorrow where military representatives would hold a ceremony with the local people, promising the safety of the returnees.

But a Komnasham representative, Mr Florentino Sarmento, said he doubted the agreement would hold in the current tense environment. "A general makes a promise of safety, but the reality on the ground is that people attack each other, so it doesn't work," he said.

About 300 people from the northern coastal district of Liquica said yesterday that they would not return home and would remain camped at the home of a former East Timorese governor, Mr Mario Carrascalao. "There are many people being armed by the military and setting up posts throughout the province, and the people are scared," said Mr Manuel Carrascalao, the ex-governor's brother.

The policy of arming civilians to boost the military's efforts has attracted vehement criticism from human rights groups. Under former president Soeharto many of the worst human rights abuses in East Timor were committed by civilian militia groups aligned with the military.

The Armed Forces Commander, General Wiranto, recently announced that tens of thousands of young men would be recruited for new militia units across the country, to assist the military in maintaining security in the face of increasing lawlessness, rioting and looting.

When Mr Soeharto resigned in May last year, the militia units in East Timor were disarmed and new hopes emerged for a peaceful settlement to the 23-year-old conflict in the former Portuguese colony. However, the re-arming of the militia began as early as November last year and, despite a much publicised withdrawal of combat troops, military reinforcements were secretly landed under the cover of night.

Mr Sarmento said hundreds of new militia members had been recruited, mostly armed with long knives and other local weapons such as slingshots. "The military has deliberately created a scenario of war between the militia and the people, to justify their presence in East Timor," he said.

One refugee, Mr Slavia de Santos, said: "I ran away because these people [militia] threatened me and told me not to come back - I am too scared to go home." Contacted by telephone, Mr de Santos said eight people had been injured by members of the militia gangs near his village.

Despite hopes for a peace settlement under the Habibie Government, the conflict in East Timor appears to have intensified, with more attacks by Fretilin on Indonesian soldiers and police and the formation of the militia and continued operations by Indonesian troops.